EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final story in a series on the 15 most memorable SEC football games beat writer David Paschall has covered since joining the newspaper in 1990. The games were presented in chronological order.
The championship game of the 2017 college football season between Alabama and Georgia inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium had yet to reveal a winner on Tuesday, Jan. 9 at 12:08 a.m.
My deadline for the story was 12 minutes away.
Something decisive needed to happen immediately and certainly did, as Crimson Tide freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was sacked for a 16-yard loss on the first play in Alabama's overtime possession, lofted a 41-yard scoring strike to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith that sealed a 26-23 victory over the Bulldogs. Georgia was tasting its first national title since 1980, but one play dashed those hopes and catapulted Alabama to its fifth crown of the Nick Saban era.
"I'm so happy for our folks and for our players," a jubilant Saban said with confetti falling all around. "I'm happy for everyone."
While Saban and his players remained on the field to celebrate, Georgia counterpart Kirby Smart quickly addressed his players after the heartbreaking defeat before appearing in a news conference. The Bulldogs entered the title game of the four-team playoff having won their first Southeastern Conference championship in 12 years and having topped Oklahoma 54-48 in a tremendous national semifinal at the Rose Bowl that required two overtimes.
Georgia's thriller over the Sooners may be the most exciting win in Bulldogs history, but it was followed by one of its most dramatic defeats.
"This has been an incredible opportunity for us," Smart said. "I can't say enough about our senior class. I think everybody can see that Georgia is going to be a force to be reckoned with. We're not going anywhere."
As soon as the Bulldogs defeated the Sooners in Pasadena, California, on the first day of 2018, ticket prices for the championship contest soared through the roof. It was either going to be Georgia-Alabama or Georgia-Clemson in Atlanta — a very drivable distance for all involved — and the Tide made it an all-SEC final by dumping Dabo Swinney's Tigers 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl, the second semifinal.
Hours before the title matchup's kickoff, the average price for a pair of tickets on StubHub was $5,000.
Donald Trump's visit to the game resulted in extensive safety checks for those entering Mercedes-Benz, with thousands of fans getting caught in the rain as they waited in line for their impending screening. Alabama produced the first big play when Georgia receiver Javon Wims bobbled a Jake Fromm pass that turned into a Tony Brown interception, but the Tide came away empty after driving to Georgia's 17-yard line when Andy Pappanastos was way left on a 40-yard field-goal attempt.
Pappanastos also would shank a 36-yard attempt as time expired in regulation that could have given Alabama a 23-20 triumph.
The Tide's win will forever be remembered for the ending and for the halftime switch from Jalen Hurts to Tagovailoa in hopes to erase a 13-0 halftime deficit. Alabama produced just 94 first-half yards, but Tagovailoa's insertion proved quite beneficial, as he completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
Not only did Tagovailoa have the second-and-26 touchdown to Smith but a fourth-and-goal score to Calvin Ridley from 7 yards out that resulted in a 20-20 deadlock with 3:49 remaining.
"We had to do something," Saban said of his decision. "We just couldn't move the ball effectively. We had not been able to throw it effectively at all, and I don't think it was just all the quarterback. I think it was the whole group."
Said Smart of Tagovailoa's arrival: "He definitely provided them some juice."
At least 80% of those in attendance that night wore red compared to crimson, and it would be a similar scene 11 months later when the Bulldogs and Tide vied for the 2018 SEC championship. In that contest, a struggling Tagovailoa was injured with less than 12 minutes remaining and replaced by Hurts, who helped rally Alabama from a 28-14 deficit to a 35-28 victory.
Sometimes stories just have a way of writing themselves.
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